House vs. Ortiz: The anatomy of an 11-pitch battle
CLEVELAND — Each baseball game can be broken down into a series of individual battles. Some confrontations end quickly, while other engagements are drawn out and develop into a battle of wits between a pitcher and batter.
The latter arose in the fifth inning of the Indians’ 5-3 victory over the Red Sox on Tuesday night. It was rookie against veteran slugger at a critical juncture in the contest. Indians lefty T.J. House was working with a two-run lead, had a runner on first base, two outs and Boston behemoth David Ortiz clapping his hands in the batter’s box.
“I’m not going to give in,” House said. “I know he’s Big Papi and he’s a good hitter, but my mind-set there is, ‘You’re going to have to earn this.'”
What followed was a classic 11-pitch battle between House and Ortiz, who eventually hacked at a sinker and flew out to center field to end the inning. That ended the cat-and-mouse game that Ortiz played with House and Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes. What stood out to Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway is the fact that House never caved or showed any sign of intimidation.
“It was a veteran approach,” Callaway said. “There are those guys where a young pitcher might be like, ‘Oh, man. I’m facing David Ortiz. I’ve been watching him on TV since I was little.’ That didn’t seem to faze him.”
Ortiz has seen 1,190 different pitchers throughout his storied career. The Red Sox designated hitter has launched a home run off 302 of those hurlers. House — called up from Triple-A Columbus on May 22 — has seen just 30 different batters in the Majors. The 24-year-old lefty was three years old when Ortiz signed his first professional contract in 1992.
On Tuesday night, the kid beat the sage.
One day later, House went through the anatomy of his fifth-inning battle with Ortiz, who was also retired by the starter in the first (groundout) and third (lineout) innings. The lefty opened their third meeting with a 93-mph sinker that tailed wide of the strike zone for a ball. House followed that with another two-seamer — a 91-mph sinker in the middle of the zone — which Ortiz swung at mightily for a foul ball.
“I want to challenge him,” House said of the first two pitches. “There’s no secret to how to get anybody out. I feel like, if I show him that I’m going to go out there and attack the guy, maybe I can get a few more swings with him outside the zone. If I can stay in there, and get [ahead in the count early], it’s going to be easier for me to change to a pitch that starts in the zone and then moves out.”
“I wanted to change speeds on him,” House said. “It looks like my fastball, so I’m trying to get him to swing, trying to get him to get that ball. I had a lot of success with keeping my changeup out of the air and that’s a thing where he’s not going to hurt me. The worst is he’s hitting a single off me, but he’s not getting a ball in the gap and he’s not hitting a home run.
“And I’m trying to bury it. I want it on the ground. If I can get him to swing and he catches it out early, he’s just going to beat that ball on the ground.”
At that point, House decided he wanted to stop Ortiz from looking for an outside pitch, so the lefty sent an 86-mph slider high and inside. Boston’s DH swung and fouled off the offering, shouting in disgust that he did not do more damage.
“If you heard him, Ortiz was yelling the whole time in that at-bat,” Gomes said. “You could tell that he’s getting frustrated, because he’s probably missing pitches he should be hitting.”
Next came a 95-mph two-seam fastball, away and to the middle of the strike zone. Once again, Ortiz fouled it off, but this time the slugger stepped out of the box to collect himself. The increase in velocity was intentional on the part of House.
“Of course. He’s been seeing anywhere from 90 to 91,” House explained. “Right there, I figured, ‘Hey, just throw it as hard as you can and see what you get out of it. Pump it up, see if he catches up with it, maybe it catches him off guard a little bit.”
After burying an 88-mph slider low and away to run the count full, House worked through a string of offspeed offerings. Ortiz fouled off an 84-mph changeup that dropped low and outside the strike zone. He then fouled off an 87-mph slider that was over the middle, but spun down and away. Four lower-velocity pitches in a row kept the guessing game going.
House followed Gomes’ lead throughout the battle, but did admit to shaking off a curveball deep into the sequence.
Gomes cracked a smile.
“I was actually going to go up to him,” Gomes said, “and say, ‘Hey, grip something weird and throw it. I don’t care. Do something.'”
The moment House shook off Gomes showed something to Callaway.
“To be able to do that in that situation, and not get flustered,” said the pitching coach, “most guys, the game would speed up on them in that situation. It’s like, ‘Oh man, what do I do? What do I do?’ He just trusted that his fastball was good enough to get him, and that was the right pitch.”
The next foul ball off Ortiz’s bat came on a 94-mph sinker on the outside corner. For his 10th pitch, House snapped off an 88-mph slider, which Ortiz spoiled as it darted low and outside the zone. The Red Sox slugger again stepped out of the box, while House tried to devise yet another plan of attack.
“He’s either getting out or he’s getting a hit,” House said. “Because I’m not walking him.”
House and Gomes opted to go back to the sinker, one that clocked in at 94 mph and arrived at nearly the same spot as the left-hander’s second pitch to the slugger. Ortiz swung for the eighth time in the at-bat, sending the baseball to center field, where Michael Bourn easily made the catch an out.
“Even the last pitch,” Gomes said, “you see in the video, Ortiz is almost bailing out to get it. I was like, ‘How the heck did he know that pitch was coming?’ It’s a credit to House, man. That’s almost a Miguel Cabrera-type guy. You win by walking him. You’re trying to keep him off second base or off the scoreboard. He just kept going at him, man.”
For House, it was not only a satisfying moment, but a valuable lesson as he proceeds on with his season and career.
“It showed me that I can win those battles against those premiere players,” he said. “If I can go out there and do it against Big Papi, why can’t I go out there and do it against Chris Davis, or Adam Dunn, or Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton? It gives me that confidence going forward.”